Brock Ellis and Glen Ellis outside The May Brothers building, a 30,000-foot space that they plan to turn into a startup hub in the heart of Fremont’s downtown.
If ambition can be measured in a ratio of vision to resources, entrepreneur Glen Ellis is the most ambitious startup community builder in Nebraska. In a meatpacking town with no state university and with no investor backing, Ellis is building a massive code school/incubator/coworking space 20 miles northwest of Omaha.
Glen Ellis has always been a little ahead of his time.
In 1999 Ellis, a veteran programmer of 15 years, started his own company in Kansas City called Sycamore Education. His vision was to provide a comprehensive school management system for keeping track of student data. He thought that it could be an online portal with all the data stored off site. At the time, long before “the cloud,” it was a radical idea for schools.
“The SaaS market at that time was often referred to as an ASP, Application Service Provider,” said Ellis. “That was essentially the cloud. It was hard for schools to grasp the idea that their data was not going to be in house.”
Ellis stuck with it, even as he continued to work full time.
“It took a while for our market to mature enough before we could convince [schools] that this was a better way to do it,” said Ellis.
Sycamore Education now provides education management services to private schools all around the world, as far as Russia and the US diplomats’ school in Egypt.
In 2004 Ellis decided to take Sycamore Education full time. He realized that he could set up his business anywhere he wanted.
“I’ve always moved with my jobs, but when we decided to take the company full time we weren’t tied to any location,” said Ellis. “We decided we could live anywhere we wanted, and we chose Fremont.”
The couple had lived there briefly before, and his wife had fallen in love with the historic homes the town is known for. So, out of a love of the city, Ellis picked up his growing tech company and moved it to Fremont.
Inventing their own small town talent pipeline
As Sycamore Education grew, Ellis faced the challenge of recruiting new talent to work for his company.
“When we arrived in Fremont they didn’t have a tech community,” said Ellis. “At first we reached out to Omaha and Lincoln, but we realized that it wasn’t going to work trying to attract high-dollar developers to Fremont.”
Ellis realized that there were people he could train already living in Fremont–bright, tech-savvy, young adults that had some college or didn’t feel like college was a good fit for them at all. Those were the kids Ellis saw potential in and the ones he wanted working for his tech company.
It was at that time that Ellis brought on his son Brock into the business. Though he has a B.A. in Natural Science, Brock taught himself how to code.
“He’s a teacher at heart, so he developed a curriculum,” said Ellis.
Brock has trained every new hire at Sycamore, refining his training system along the way.
“It’s starting to work,” said Ellis. “We’ve seen that what we’re doing can not only benefit us, but it can also benefit the community.”
In the future Ellis plans to develop the system into something that can grow a startup community in Fremont.
“We’re going to have a code camp and a biz camp that will work in parallel,” said Ellis. “We have the tool set, and the need is there.”The first floor of the May Brothers building will be a coffee shop, event space, and technology resource center.
Restoring the entrepreneurial spirit in Fremont
But Ellis isn’t finished yet.
In 2014 Ellis purchased the May Brothers Building, built in 1881 and the second-largest building in historic downtown Fremont. In the 1860s the May Brothers started a small grocery business on the site, which later led to the building of a larger 3-story building that housed their regional wholesale grocery business. Ellis hopes to bring entrepreneurship back to that very site.
The May Brothers building is very big–30,000 square feet.
To put that in perspective, the Think Big building, a coworking and accelerator space in Kansas City, is 24,000 square feet. And the Wareham, a similar space in Omaha owned by Creighton University, is 44,000 square feet.
Ellis’ dream is to renovate the space and turn it into the innovative hub of Fremont. He has been inspired by the ideas of Brad Feld in his book Startup Communities.
“One of [Feld’s] pillars is that the community be led by entrepreneurs,” said Ellis. “So many times these communities are investor or banker led.”
For this reason, Ellis has not taken on any investors for the project, so that the vision remains focused on entrepreneurship. He started a nonprofit called (Fremont) Creative Collective in order to receive donations for the project. Without investors, however, the road is going to be a long one.
“That’s definitely going to slow things down,” said Ellis. “My job is to get people in Fremont to understand the plan, the need, and the impact on the community. The sooner I can do this, the sooner we can get this this thing running.”
Ellis is applying for grants and seeking donations.
“This is going to have a bigger economic impact on the city of Fremont than anything we’ve seen in a long time,” said Ellis. “I think you’re going to look at this 10 years from now and see the impact.”
Another of Feld’s ideas is the need for a 20-year commitment. Ellis says he’s read for the long haul.
“It’s not a short term goal,” said Ellis. “It’s a 20-year commitment on our part, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Sycamore Education will relocate their offices to the 3rd Floor of the May Brothers Building.
The first floor of the May Brothers building will be renovated into an open-air environment with free wi-fi and plenty of places for for the community to sit, meet, eat, or hold events. The idea is to draw more traffic downtown and re-energize the neighborhood.
The second floor will be remodeled as a co-working, incubator, and affordable office space. Ellis hopes the space will allow startups and business service providers (legal, financial, design, for example) to work in the same space.
The third floor with be the new home of Sycamore Education. Their current location, a century-old, 3-story house, is already at capacity, and the new space will allow them expand their team. The third floor was originally meant as a warehouse, but from the windows you can see a sweeping panorama of Fremont. It’s an inspiring sight.
Although there’s a lot of work ahead of them, Creative Collective will be hosting an event on May 1 (May Day) in the May Brothers Building to start the conversation about entrepreneurship in Fremont. Dusty Reynolds, a Fremont-native and the founder of Race Note, will be speaking at the event. Also speaking will be Todd Johnson from Gallup and Autumn Pruitt from Aromas and Bliss Bakery. For more details on the event, check out fremontcreativecollective.org.